- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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College football is coming. Next month in fact. Hurry up, already. Well, we're getting in the mood at least by taking a closer look at the nonconference opponents on each Big Ten team's schedule this fall.
Let's see what's in store for Wisconsin outside of Big Ten action.
Massachusetts, Aug. 31
Coach: Charley Molnar (second season, 1-11)
2012 record: 1-11, 1-7 MAC
Offensive headliner: Tight end Rob Blanchflower had 43 catches for 464 yards in 10 games last season, and might be the best NFL prospect on the roster. He'll be joined at tight end by Michigan transfer Ricardo Miller.
Defensive headliner: The team's leading returning tackler is Kassan Messiah, a linebacker who is switching to defensive end this season. Will he live up to his last name?
The skinny: UMass played its first season as an FBS member last year, and it went about the same way these things always do. Included in the Minutemen's 11 losses were a 45-6 loss to Indiana at home, and a 63-13 loss at Michigan. UMass did manage to score a win against Akron, which went winless in 2012, but the program obviously has a long way to go toward respectability.
Tennessee Tech, Sept. 7
Coach: Watson Brown (sixth season, 28-39)
2012 record: 3-8, 1-7 Ohio Valley (FCS)
Offensive headliner: Darian Stone led the team in rushing with 553 yards on 89 carries, and also completed 70 passes for 786 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Defensive headliner: How about a punter? Chad Zinchini ranked fourth in the FCS with a punting average of 44.8 yards last season, setting a school record. Something tells me he might get a few tries in Madison in Week 2.
The skinny: The good news for the Golden Eagles last season was that they averaged 31.5 points per game, led by star receiver and current Buffalo Bill Da'Rick Rogers. The bad news is they allowed 31.2 points per game. They allowed 63 points to Oregon and 70 to Murray State, losing eight of their last nine games last year.
at Arizona State, Sept. 14
Coach: Todd Graham (second season, 8-5)
2012 record: 8-5, 5-4 Pac-12
Offensive headliner: Quarterback Taylor Kelly took to Todd Graham's spread system well. He threw for 3,039 yards and 29 touchdowns with only nine interceptions last season while finishing ninth nationally in passer efficiency.
Defensive headliner: Senior defensive tackle Will Sutton was the Pac-12 defensive player of the year last season after posting 23.5 tackles for loss and 13 sacks. He was a consensus first-team All-American whose decision to return for his senior year gave the Sun Devils a big boost.
The skinny: Arizona State had a solid first year under Graham and returns 16 starters. Despite some question marks at receiver, the Sun Devils still have plenty of offensive firepower, and our friends over at the Pac-12 blog have ranked this team No. 3 in that league's post-spring power rankings, ahead of UCLA, Washington and USC. Arizona State will play just one game -- against FCS Sacramento State -- before Wisconsin arrives in the desert in Week 3. That begins a brutal stretch that also sees the Sun Devils go to Stanford, host USC and play Notre Dame at Cowboys Stadium.
BYU, Nov. 9
Coach: Bronco Mendenhall (ninth season, 74-29)
2012 record: 8-5
Offensive headliner: Receiver Cody Hoffman had 100 catches for 1,248 yards and 11 touchdowns last season. He was one of only 10 FBS players to reach triple digits in receptions in 2012.
Defensive headliner: Kyle Van Noy finished with 13 sacks last season and had 9.5 tackles in his final three games, plus a pick-six interception in the bowl victory against San Diego State.
The skinny: The Cougars' strength last season was unquestionably on defense, where they ranked second in the nation in rush defense, third in points allowed and third in total defense. Van Noy is one of only four starters who return, however, although some other players will be back from their Mormon mission. The offense might carry a bigger share of the load, as promising sophomore quarterback Taysom Hill is back from an ACL injury that short-circuited his 2012 season.
Wisconsin has had some questionable (at best) nonconference schedules the past few years, and the first two games of this season are about as bad as it gets. UMass is basically an FCS team at this point, while Tennessee Tech is an actual bad FCS team. Both those games could get ugly. But things get much more interesting after that. Big Ten teams have not fared well of late when venturing into Pac-12 country, and the Badgers will have to have hit their stride when they take on a potent and dangerous Arizona State squad on the road. That will be a huge early test for Wisconsin's young and inexperienced secondary. It's highly unusual to see a November nonconference game in the Big Ten, but that's the case for the BYU contest. Gary Andersen has plenty of experience playing BYU from his days at Utah State, and his Aggies lost a hard-fought 6-3 game in Provo last season. Both teams should have all their questions sorted out by the time they meet at Camp Randall, but it will be interesting to see how the Badgers respond to stepping out of conference so late in the season. A worst-case scenario here is 2-2.
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